Ruthless! The Musical
Presented through July 8 at the Boiler Room Theatre
The Factory at Franklin, 230 Franklin Rd., Franklin
For tickets, call 794-7744 or visit www.boilerroomtheatre.com
The cozy little Boiler Room Theatre in Franklin made a nice splash back in March with a highly entertaining production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Now the company returns with the second offering of its inaugural season, Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s Ruthless! The Musical. Winner of the 1993 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, this is a far more challenging piece, and on opening night, the results indicated as much.
The Boiler Room folks bring their zeal and dedication to the task, and there are moments when you think this zany, campy spoof of ’50s movies is going to take off. Yet it never really does.
The script is based loosely on the 1956 film The Bad Seed, a tawdry tale of a murderous child and her mother’s deep, dark past. In this translation, our “heroine,” the blond, pigtailed Tina Denmark, has a desire to be a big star of stage and screen. But schoolmate Louise Lermanhaving grabbed the lead in the school play, Pippi in Tahitiis standing in her way. Egged on by one Sylvia St. Croix, who desires to be her manager, Tina takes the actor’s mantra “break a leg” one step too far, hurling poor Louise to her death from the school auditorium catwalk.
Meanwhile, Tina’s mother, Judy Denmark, is nagged by recurring feelings that she doesn’t quite know the truth about her own origins. As a suburban mother, she worries about Tina a lot, of course; but more important is her discovery that her real mother was a big Broadway star. So, while Tina is doing time in juvenile prison, her mom successfully pursues a theatrical career and thus fulfills the family legacy.
When Act 2 takes over, the script becomes rather a stillborn parody of the classic Bette Davis/Anne Baxter film All About Eve. Later, Tina finishes up her jail sentence, returns home sadder but wiser, induces Judy to return to her role as middle-class mom, and the cast comes together to sing the title tune, whose message glorifiesquite tongue-in-cheek, of coursea cutthroat approach to life.
There’s some funny stuff here. The takeoffs and put-ons revolve around myriad pop-culture references, including films like Mommie Dearest and Tootsie, Ethel Merman’s stage performance in Gypsy, and even television’s Gilligan’s Island. Throughout, there are humorous jabs at the theater, much of it reserved for the woeful state of the modern musical.
It’s all done in good fun, and director Dan McGeachy keeps the proceedings moving along at a decent pace most of the time. But there are problems with performances that hamstring the overall effect. Satire is hard enough to pull off when your motor is hitting on all cylinders; when there are weak links, however, the results can be an awful chore to witness. The latter happens far too often in this production for it to be deemed successful.
Boiler Room stalwart Lisa Gillespie handles the pivotal role of Judy. As always, she’s mostly terrific, bringing her singing skills and a delightful sense of dopey sincerity to her Act 1 role, then segueing deftly into the Act 2 incarnation of an egomaniacal Broadway star. She’s involved in no less than seven musical numbers, including the very funny opener, “Tina’s Mother.” But even Gillespie falters a bit in the later, too-strident “It Will Never Be That Way Again.”
Melody Dawn Kennedy is child star Tina. She plays it over the top, which is certainly correct, and the gal can belt out a tune. Yet there’s an unevenness to her performance. She makes it through her signature number, “Born to Entertain,” with the appropriate spirit, but her tap dancing is weaker than it ought to be. Sure, this is satire, but one is struck by the feeling that we should be wowed by the musical-comedy kid in her. We’re not.
In a role that was supposedly written with Bea Arthur (Maude) in mind, Lewis Kempfer takes on the mighty task of a drag portrayal of Sylvia. Like the trooper he is, Kempfer goes for the gusto, and he certainly has taken pains to look the part. He’s largely good, but it’s hard to know if it’s the writing or Kempfer that makes his performance seem a tad dreary at times. He’s a first-rate performer, but he’s better as a guy playing a guy.
Cela Scott does well with her two smaller roles, Louise and Eve. She’s a lively-looking actress, and she offers a nice performance in her one important number, the Act 2 opener “Penthouse Apartment.”
Adele Akin also handles two comic turns, as Miss Thorn the schoolteacher and as reporter Emily Block. Her work is truly perplexing. She can’t really sing much, yet she does get some legitimate laughs when she delivers the cynical “Teaching Third Grade.” As with Kempfer, when she’s off the mark, it’s hard to know whether it’s the writing, the direction, or simply her performance. (I’d argue that it’s her performance.) Even more problematic is Cathie Correia Stamps as theater critic Lita Encore. When she cranks out the show’s bellwether number, “I Hate Musicals,” her singing, unfortunately, would indicate that she does indeed.
Corbin Green’s settings are a bit cheesy, but it’s difficult to perceivegiven the corny aspects of the scriptwhether they’re really supposed to look that way. Whatever the intent, things just look, well, cheesy, and also too cramped on the Boiler Room’s small stage. Green also did the lighting, which was sloppy in places on opening night.
Handling the music is the ever-reliable musical director and pianist Jamey Green. He plays up a storm throughout, and if anyone gets a gold star next to his name on the teacher’s chart, it’s him. If only the stage performers had come through in similar fashion.
For all the eccentric performances, loud singing, and expended energy in this daffy production, it’s far less entertaining than it ought to be.
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